re: the politics of hair / in explanation to my village
I’m wary of saying words or doing “think piece” if I have nothing to add to the overall discourse but vainglorious intellectualisms. Though self-congratulatory I may be, looking smart and well-read for the internet is not why I’m here.
I want to explain myself. I’ve chosen to get political.
As a Ghanaian-American student attending a predominately white institution in St. Louis, MO, it would only be a matter of time before I’d notice the spirals and coinks and bounces and wools atop the heads of many of my black female counterparts who so strikingly put the “predominately” in my university’s PWI.
It would only be a matter of months before the curl-envy would begin.
“Could my hair look like that? Does the hair that grows out of my scalp look like that?” — Me, 2014 probably
As a Ghanaian-American student who had previously lived in Gilbert, Arizona for most of my life, I had had no clue about what lay on my head, what my own hair looked like unstraightened and unhassled. My mom and I had always “taken care of it” before it could grow back into curls and cause problems.
Don’t mistake this fact as a cry for pity- chemical creams and synthetic serums had always made our lives easier. Whenever my hair looked like it was picking up too much fight and too much resistance, we would sit down and comb through and slather on and straighten it out. Every 6 weeks, my hair would be chemically treated to become quote-unquote more manageable, quote-unquote less frizzy, quote-unquote better. It was quick, it only burned a little, and I truly and honestly didn’t care about the implications that permanently straightening my permanently non-straight hair carried.
Because we did what we had to do. We did what my mother had done for my two older sisters, what her mother had done for her in her young adult years back in Kumasi, Ghana’s Kwadaso Estates, what we had learned and what they had learned to be respectability and to be success and to be survival in this world. It was duty and it was straight hair and it really only burned a little.
And soon, it became pretty. My straight hair became long. Though I was a dark-skinned black girl who often felt/experienced/sensed that my femininity was in constant threat with every offhand comment or any mean tweet, I had long hair.
(Hair that I would backdoor brag about, a la “it may be kinda long but it’s so hard to take care of!” “I know my own hair is just as long as my weaves but I just like versatility!”)
But, alas. The curl envy started showing itself again and again and again, and I decided that I wanted to go natural, if not for the wrong reasons- if there are right and wrong reasons for these types of things.
I knew that whenever I would cut off my 19 years of chemically-straightened hair, I would cut off years of access and professionalism and opportunity, cut off years of being seen as the “different” black girl and instead, become just another “gurlllllll” with fingers snapped and gum popped at the ready. I knew that I would have to get used to understanding that if I googled things like professional hairstyles for work, I would always end up feeling simultaneously sad and unsurprised.
I knew that I would have to explain myself- have to nod politely when well-meaning friends honestly complimented me in that “they wish they had the courage to go with a short bob!” and “wow- you look just like Lupita!!” It would be awkward explaining to some of the people around me that cutting off my hair was more than just trying out a fun new style- and so far, it’s been filled with much more frustration than frivolity.
(To be real, it would be just a little too much to contextualize how much more this haircut would mean to me than it would if I were just trying to experiment with my cheekbones or if I were just inspired to go for a dramatic chop after a horrible break-up. Those reasons are not bad reasons to change up your hair. But those are not my reasons.)
I knew that I would only be so lucky to just now experience dealing with these things like wearing my natural, curly hair as societal baggage. That for 19 years, I’d ignored the stigma of natural hair because I could and because I wanted to and because if I couldn’t be lighter-skinned, at least I could have less-black hair.
That like many things in life, there would be many hierarchies present surrounding me and enveloping me when I would go natural and wear my hair out. That I would be too African, too black, too nappy-headed to ever have the beautiful boingy curls more normalized in society. That natural hair with “the wrong kind of face” could carry a lot more stigma than the same coiled hair on a sweeter face. That it would be weird and uncomfortable to navigate those waters and submit to these hierarchies while also admitting to these privileges.
I cut off my hair last Tuesday and so far, it’s been all of that weirdness and realization, with a little bit of strength and a lot bit of free. 1 week natural and I’m realizing that being lazy with my real hair won’t cut it anymore. I’m realizing that my newly curly hair is #parched and will drink up any moisture it comes into contact with. I’m realizing that my current short ‘fro is not necessarily where I’d want it to be in the future, and I’m realizing that that’s okay. That’s the journey. That’s the point. I’m okay.
Just like I’m wary of writing think pieces for the sake of think piece bravado, I’m also wary of ending this article with symbolism for the sake of exuding overwrought deepness or cute quotables.
But if I have to make a symbol out of anything, it would be that going natural after a lifetime of not-naturalness is like finding community with someone that you’ve seen around many times before but for some reason (many reasons) you’ve not befriended until now. And as much as it’s a new friend to me, it’s also a new friend to my village- friends, colleagues, family, and peers- who get to witness my hair and its newly-released defiance and God-formed, -breathed, and -defined goodness.
To my village: This article is not directed in animosity toward any of you, although I have used some of my experiences with you this week to inform my narrative. Introduce yourself to me and my newly natural hair- ask me about my experiences with cutting off my hair if you’re interested. Ask more experienced black women who are willing to share about their lived experiences with natural hair (I’ve only been at this for a week!). Do research into the politics of black hair if you’re willing to learn. Please just ask before putting your hands in your hair. This new friend, my naturally curly hair with its kinks and its twirls, does not call for the dehumanization of a petting zoo.
To my black women around me: Thank you for being the pioneers and the warriors and the finishers and the strength, and thank you for when you’ve not been, because you don’t always have to be. You’ve taught me that my personal politics of my self-love is enough and I owe you my allegiance.
To myself: Girl. You know you’ve tried to convince yourself throughout writing this entire thing that this article wasn’t for attention or for laudation of the words to which you’ve decided to go natural- it was for catharsis.
Maybe it’s for both, though.